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Between Two Worlds.

Entre dos mundos, by Juan Zapata Olivella (Bogota: Plaza y Janes, 1990). Although the word "novel" appears on the cover under the author's name, Entre dos mundos (Between Two Worlds) is not a novel in the conventional sense. Rather is it a long meditation on topics as diverse as the workings of the human brain, the exploitation of Marilyn Monroe by commercial interests, the uses of the laser beam and the fate of illegal aliens in the United States.

The unifying thread is the idea that man, in particular, the Latin American, is caught "between two worlds": one governed by technology, the other by fantasy. On the one hand, modem science has broadened our horizons marvelously. It has brought into reach unprecedented amounts of information that can help us resolve the countless problems we face. Nevertheless, science cannot fulfill man's spiritual needs. This is the realm of fantasy, myth, religion. As one character clearly speaking for the author explains, the brain is divided into two hemispheres: "the left side ... is analytical, concrete, presumptuous, sharp, and the right side is imaginitive, innovative, visionary, and even dreamy." Logic and creativity are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, they are mutually dependent. Man is rational and intuitive at the same time.

Zapata illustrates his thesis through his protagonist, Germin Gallardo, a neurosurgeon from Colombia who achieves international fame when he operates on the Pope after an assasination attempt. The first part of the book, designated "The Infranovel," describes Gallardo's studies and residency in Calandria, "a town fun of tradition," where he starts his career. The second part--"the Supernovel"--narrates Gallardo's experiences at the Illinois Zionic Hospital of Chicago, where he has been accepted into a highly special program in neurosurgery, his professional triumph and his decision to return to Colombia.

Throughout the novel Gallardo is "between two worlds," but they are never in conflict. His desire to excel at the study of neurology does not dim his appreciation for the traditions, legends and beliefs of his own people. Even in the United States, where technology has assumed such a dominant role, Gallardo preserves his faith and his ability to dream. His final triumph represents the perfect fusion of faith and science, for if Gallardo succeeds in saving the Pope, it is due as much to his spiritual purity and devout Catholicism as to his medical expertise.

Zapata's premise may be valid, but Entre dos mundos fails as a novel. The characters lack psychological depth; the author recounts their experiences and successes without ever depicting them in action or allowing us to hear their voices. The elimination of action and dialogue reduces the characters to mere tokens whose only purpose is to illustrate specific points of view. Except for Gallardo, none of the characters appears in more than a few episodes. Zapata constantly creates potentially interesting types which he drops after a few pages.

Zapata's utopian vision is far from convincing. The town of Calandria presents an idyllic vision. All of the citizens are exemplary, and envy and rancor are nonexistant. Rancher Sergio Palazuelos, formerly a stereotypical local strongman-rich, coarse, arrogant and womanizing-returns from a trip to Europe, totally reformed, "speaking like an intellectual and wearing elegant clothes." In addition, he becomes a good Catholic, making a generous contribution to the Church. The moral we are to derive from his conversion is that the backwardness of these towns results less from their geographical isolation than from the lack of schools to instruct and educate so that country folks won't become guerrillas, bandits and unbridled individuals given to vice."

Zapata's Latin American characters are uniformly pure and virtuous. However, in the United States, Gallardo meets up with a few bad guys. The worst is Dr. Albert Zweig, director of the hospital where the Colombian doctor receives his advanced training. Zweig is insensitive, prejudiced, libidinous and stand-offish. By insisting on Zweig's Jewishness, Zapata gives a distinctly anti-semitic tone to his book, thereby undermining the ideal of ethnic harmony he purports to defend.

In contrast to Zweig, the heroic Gallardo is too good to be true. Kind as well as brilliant, he is a champion of women's rights and a wonderful orator. He goes from one triumph to the next without ever letting success go to his head. In the United States, he masters English, amazes his colleagues with his surgical prowess and becomes rich and respected, apparently without having to make much of an effort. At the end of the book, in keeping with the author's all too clearly deformed goals, he abandons wealth and position to return to Calandria, where he marries his long-lost love and establishes a thoroughly modern medical facility. The town becomes a bustling, affluent tourist attraction, without, of course, losing its local character.

The worthiness of Zapata's stated goals is beyond dispute. He is a champion of the reconciliation of the arts and the sciences, international cooperation the abolition of racial and ethnic prejudice, tolerance and education for all. It's a shame his message gets lost in the jumble of words.

Paradise, by Elena Castedo (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990). Paradise is story of survival-spiritual, as well as physical. The story line of Elena Castedo's first novel is deceptively simple: The Prados family, refugees from Franco's Spain, settles in an unidentified Latin American country, where the father continues his activities as a labor agitator. Tired of her husband's endless politicking and the refugee ghetto where they live, Pilar wrangles an invitation for herself and her two children to El Topaz, a huge country estate. It will be Paradise she tells Solita, almost ten, and four-year-old Neceto. The novel relates their stay at the sprawling hacienda, beginning with their arrival and ending with their departure.

As described by Solita, the precocious child-narrator, Paradise is more like hell. A microcosm of Latin American society, El Topaz becomes the training ground where Solita learns what her mother learned years before, first in war-torn Spain and then in Nazi concentration camps: how to survive in an unjust, hierarchical world. Presided over by Dona Mercedes, estranged wife of the estate owner, El Topaz is a gathering place for high-class and not-so-high-class eccentrics. A constipated psychiatrist, a German photographer, a frustrated dancer, an other-worldly young horsewoman, an uppity French governess, assorted estate owners, politicians, poets and artists populate the premises at various times, along with their dogs, a goat and a guanaco. They are catered to by a platoon of servants, and the estate is kept running by a population of peasants, none of whom is of much interest to the inhabitants of the "houses"-the area occupied by Dona Mercedes and her guests. In the distilled atmosphere of El Topaz, a pecking order is strictly observed.

The hostess' daughters, Patricia and the twins Grace and Gloria, make life miserable for Solita, tricking and teasing her incessently. Only Gloria shows any compassion at all for the little girl, whose name reflects her solitude. Living in a pension in the Spanish ghetto, Solita ran free, only vaguely aware of social stratification and decorum. But her little hostesses are quick to make her understand that she is their inferior. She is poor, without an elegant name or lineage; worst of are, she is a "goth" (the disparaging term for "Spaniard").

The girls manipulate Solita by pretending to know some dark secret about her mother. Pilar was brought to the estate because Mercedes considered her amusing, but according to both the girls and the servants, she has overstayed her welcome. Solita is tom between the desire to spit in the girls' faces and the real psychological need to please her mother, who has instructed her to get along with her hostesses.

Pilar turns on the charm to secure her place among the elite. She has sold out to the system, but she has been through so much that we can hardly blame her. At times her Republican tendencies surface, but Pilar cuts such an attractive file that Mercedes and her guests consider her liberal views an adorable oddity.

Solita maintains a strong sense of dignity that prevents her from kowtowing to Patricia and the twins, but her loyalty to her mother is so fierce that she puts up with the girls' persecution in order to protect Pilar. For a while Solita longs desperately for her father to come and rescue her, but gradually she realizes that there is no way out. You have to learn to cope: "Long-range plans didn't work; each minute you had to save your skin right then and there, by yourself, and in ways that wouldn't come back to haunt you. " When Solita's mother returns from the city with beautiful dolls for the other girls and a cheap one for her, she hides her pain: "I watched the girls take off their dolls' skirts and sweaters. My doll could grow big and invite me to go to Charley's. I accepted. I stayed sensible. I licked wounds."

Through the child's observations of half-understood events, Castedo paints a disturbing picture of a sordid society. The bored clique moves from one amusement to the next. Infidelity, lesbian and homosexual experimentation, and flings with the field hands relieve their tedium-and loneliness.

When Pilar at last plans to leave, Mercedes, who is sexually attracted to her, stages a lavish party to keep her at El Topaz a while longer. The grotesque carnival atmosphere of this last big bash conveys magnificently the hollowness of her guests' existence. Grown men and women dress up in costumes and take part in silly charades. It is bizarre parody of normal affairs at El Topaz, where all the inhabitants are merely role-players.

The behavior of the guests' children mirrors that of their parents. These wealthy youngsters establish their own pecking order. In comparison with the sons and daughters of her mother's millionaire visitors, Patricia and her sisters are nothing. The girls who have tormented Solita for months now struggle desperately to show that they are members of the elite, using Solita as their pawn. They attempt to prove their own superiority by degrading her horribly in front of the others. Solita, who has tried to gain acceptance through her athletic prowess, must come to terms with the fact that in society people are not judged by their talents and contributions, but by their money and power. Surprising developments finally free Solita from the grip of Paradise. She leaves El Topaz with a much clearer notion of how society works, but also with a renewed sense of self.

Elena Castedo has written a brilliant novel in which the narrative voice never falters. Solita is a touching character whose candor filters the harshness of Castedo's view. The child's ingenuous questions point out the absurdity of the rituals and values that govern upper class society, and her commentaries reveal the selfishness and cruelty of adults and children alike. Through Solita, Castedo raises some complex issues about human nature in general, and about Latin society in particular.

Castedo was born in Barcelona, raised in Chile and currently lives in the United States. Paradise was published first in English, but the author's own Spanish version is forthcoming.

Barbara Mujica, a novelist, short-story writer and essayist, is author or co-author of nearly 30 books on Hispanic culture, literature and language. The most recent are The Deaths of Don Bernardo, a novel, and Texto y vida, an introduction to Spanish literature, both published this year. Dr. Mujica is an Associate Professor at Georgetowm University, where she teaches Hispanic literature and directs El Retablo, a Spanish-language theatre group.
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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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